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Hosting a Vegetarian on Turkey Day

By Lindsay Morris

The National Turkey Federation estimates that 46 million turkeys were eaten at Thanksgiving in 2009. It is not as easy to tally how many people did not eat a bite of that traditional main course. A “Vegetarian Times” poll suggests at least 7.3 million U.S. adults follow a vegetarian diet; 0.5 percent of Americans older than 18 (or 1 million) call themselves vegans. Having eaten a plant-based diet since 1996, I have refused my fair share of turkey and gravy at Thanksgiving. And, I have received enough calls from concerned hosts requesting additional confirmation (“You can eat bread, right?”) to know that catering to a vegetarian or (gasp!) vegan guest can further strain a holiday host’s personal stress fest. To help allay those fears, I sought out the advice of vegan author and nutrition educator Bryanna Clark Grogan, whose numerous low-fat vegetarian cookbooks demonstrate just how easy it is to make over even the richest recipes without alienating traditionalists and meat-lovers. Here, Grogan's answers to your important hosting questions.

People often forget that vegan foods are inclusive, not exclusive.

Bryanna Clark Grogan

Q: What are the dos and don’ts with regard to showcasing what has been done to make a meal more accessible?

I think both the hosts and the vegetarian guests should be as accommodating as possible and not make too much fuss. I simply let the host know what I won't eat and then I let them know what I can eat. (They usually don't realize that there's so much left to eat!) I tell them not to make anything special for me; that I can eat side dishes as long as they don't contain animal foods. People often forget that vegan foods are inclusive, not exclusive (everyone can eat vegan foods). I would also offer to bring a dish to share with everyone, if they like. I might also offer to bring vegan gravy, and perhaps some Earth Balance [margarine] and a vegan dessert, for myself (and anyone who might like to try it).

I also believe that neither the hosts nor the vegetarian guests should discuss dietary choices at the table. It can make for uncomfortable conversation if someone believes they must explain themselves, or another guest aggressively questions the vegetarian's motives (this happens frequently). There are other things to talk about! If someone brings it up at the table, I just say I'll be happy to answer their questions after the meal.

Q: What questions should a host ask?

It would be great if a host asked exactly what foods the vegetarian guest avoids, and then, if the host is not familiar with vegetarian/vegan foods, they might ask for suggestions for simple dishes that everyone can enjoy, not just the vegetarians.

Another piece of advice for vegetarian/vegan guests: Unless you are truly allergic to a certain food, or have celiac disease, don't fuss if certain foods you prefer to avoid might be on the menu (such as oil, wheat or soy). It's only one meal and you don't have to eat a lot. If you hosts go to all the trouble to provide food you can eat, don't expect them to cater to every little food preference. It might just put them off ever inviting another vegetarian to a meal. If, on the other hand you are allergic or have celiac disease, by all means, let them know this and offer to bring some food that you can safely eat.

Q: What ingredients should a host watch for?

For both vegans and vegetarians: bits of ham or bacon; meat or poultry broth; fish or seafood; gelatin; milk chocolate; white chocolate. For vegans, [avoid] eggs or egg products; milk products (particularly cheese); or honey.

Q: Should a host plan a separate meal for the guest or are there simple substitutes to traditional Thanksgiving ingredients?

From the traditional type of meal, a vegan could eat the cranberry sauce, salads, vegetable dishes, mashed potatoes, roasted squash, sweet potatoes, bread or rolls. This is assuming that the host is willing to make these without animal products, which, as I mentioned before, would be suitable for all the diners. Earth Balance or olive oil can be used in place of butter; dark sesame oil in place of bacon fat; commercial nondairy milk in place of milk; vegetarian broth in place of meat broth. If the dish is usually made with cheese and/or bacon or ham, some of the dish can be [prepared without animal products] first and put aside for the vegans.

Even some of the stuffing can be made vegan. If Earth Balance or oil is used in the stuffing, with vegan broth to moisten it, and no egg, seafood or meat is added, some of it can be packed into a baking dish or loaf pan greased with dark sesame oil and the top brushed with the same oil. It can be baked, covered with foil for about 1 hour at 325 to 400 degrees F.

All of these things are plenty for a meal. But, if the hosts want to provide a vegan main dish, they could purchase a Tofurky, or a Field Roast Celebration Roast. Amy's Kitchen also has a delicious Non Dairy Vegetable Pot Pie. Or, they could stuff squash with a festive wild rice mixture of cranberries and nuts and bake it.

As for dessert, the vegan guest can offer to bring one, or the hosts, if they prefer not to try a vegan recipe themselves, could purchase a vegan graham cracker crumb crust and some vegan ice cream at a health food store and make a frozen ice cream pie. They could also purchase some Soyatoo! or MimicCreme whipped vegan topping and/or vegan chocolate or caramel sauce to top it. Again, this could be shared with all the guests.

Q: Should a host worry about displaying the turkey bird? Will it offend the vegetarian or vegan guest?

I think that if, as a vegan or vegetarian, I could not be around meat, I would respectfully turn down the invitation. I, personally, have learned to be comfortable around meat-eaters and I just ignore the meat and enjoy my own food. But, everyone has their own comfort level.

On the host's part, they might want to ask the vegetarian guest how they feel about having a whole roasted bird cut up at the table. If they would prefer not to see the whole bird, it could be carved in the kitchen and served on a platter.

Hidden Animal Ingredients

Whether your guest is a lacto-ovo vegetarian (consumes dairy and eggs) or a vegan (no animal products), she will appreciate if you first ask which ingredients to avoid.

For example, even if she eats dairy, she might avoid hard cheeses, which contain rennet derived from organs.

Ask your guest before purchasing the following suspect foods for reasons specified: cane sugar (often processed using a bone-char filter; beet sugar is vegetarian); cheese (often contains rennet, extracted from a calf stomach);Jell-O (contains gelatin derived from animals); marshmallows (contain gelatin derived from animals unless labeled "vegetarian"); stuffing mix (may contain meat broth); quick bread or muffin mixes (such as Jiffy, which contains animal shortening); instant pudding (may contain gelatin); Worcestershire sauce (contains anchovies).

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